Mud puddles and sun cover the basketball court in the old gym at Seymour Community High School, where banners from the old Bluegrass Conference still hang below what remains of the roof. Photo by Caleb Housh
PIONEER CEMETERY COMMISSION AND CENTERVILLE MONUMENT COMPANY COMBINE RESOURCES TO FIX GRAVES
As mayor of Seymour, on the morning of March 7, Caleb Housh at first light was able to view the wreckage left behind by an EF2 tornado, which hit the town the previous evening. The storm destroyed at least four homes, while the school building took a direct hit. It spread insulation throughout ash trees and power lines. Each subsequent morning, Housh woke to another mess, as debris took its time falling from branches to the now snow-covered ground.
Housh lives around two blocks north of the school building. At first, nothing seemed out of place or unusual on that late winter evening, besides the fact it was too early in the year for a spring rain.
“It just sounded like a normal thunderstorm at my house,” Housh said. “I didn’t hear the train or all the telltale signs of a tornado.”
After the fire chief and dozens of residents called him to report the damage, Housh’s job was to get the community center up and running for people who needed to be evacuated from their homes.
“It was shock,” Housh said. “Because I had to drive to the south side of Seymour to grab the key to the community center. So I had to go in front of the school, and when I turned, there were power lines down and debris everywhere. I had to drive through yards and ditches, however I could to get back there [to the community center].
“It was pitch black, so you could only see what your headlights show. Every time you turn and look, it gets worse and worse.
“Until you see it in the daylight… I had no idea the gymnasium roofs had blown off. It was a direct hit on the school. It was all devastating and emotional for about those first 15 minutes on Tuesday, and then everyone started showing up to help.”
RETURN TO CLASS
According to Housh, classes at Seymour Community School District are tentatively scheduled to begin again Mon., March 20 at the care center on the northeast side of town. Some of the streets nearby will be made one-way to help with traffic flow. Despite some reports, the tornado did not damage the care center, but it still must be brought up to code.
“That’s still up in the air right now,” Housh said of the school start date. “They’re remodeling the former nursing home right now. The goal is to get in new windows and new doors, get our sprinkler system fixed. The fire marshal will be here Wed. [March 15].”
After the tornado, students from local school districts and colleges flocked to Seymour to help. Young men and women from Centerville, Graceland University, Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Lamoni, Moravia, Mormon Trail, Moulton-Udell, Mount Ayr, Putnam County, Twin Cedars and Wayne came in waves.
“It was more than the schools,” Housh said. “At 6:30 on Tuesday morning I was standing out in front of the school by myself, and I was pretty well devastated. I had no idea what we were going to do.
“And then here came the first skid loader, and the dump trucks and excavators—a whole army of heavy equipment that came in to clean up Tuesday got the biggest chunk of the heavy stuff out.
“And then to have the kids come in on Wednesday and Thursday helping with the little things was just amazing. Corydon, Moravia and Moulton had pretty much everything cleaned up by Wednesday.
“When I woke up Thursday, everything had fallen out of the trees, and it didn’t look like they’d done anything. All the Mount Ayr kids knocked it out on Thursday afternoon. It looked really nice.
“Friday, I woke up—more stuff had fallen out of the trees. We’ve got stuff way up there. It was a process, but the kids were great. They were all working hard. We probably had 300 or 400 trash bags picked up by them.
“Overall, I couldn’t have done it without the help of all the equipment—I’d love to name names, but I don’t want to leave anybody out.”
A week after the tornado, 15 degrees and snowing, the flag flies again above the boarded up windows of the Seymour school building. Photo by Jason Selby
By Friday, Housh had to turn away around 400 more volunteers.
The same day, volunteers from Lamoni and Graceland were cleaning up near Vernon Mullet’s residence and business. His house was destroyed by the tornado.
“These kids were walking ditches cleaning up insulation,” Director of Wayne County EMC/E911 Bill Byrns said. “And they looked down and found a box. And it was their wedding rings.”
Michael Starnes, a Lamoni junior, found a blue-and-white heart-shaped box in one of the ditches. When he opened it, there were two bands, and the homeowners’ names were written inside the case. He personally returned them to Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Mullet.
On March 16 and March 17, the Wayne County Pioneer Cemetery Commission, together with the Centerville Monument Company, at no charge fixed 109 overturned gravestones and broken monuments at Seymour’s Southlawn Cemetery.
One pine tree, almost three feet in diameter, was snapped in half.
“Have you ever been to a cemetery without any trees?” Housh asked. “I think there’s one [tree] left.
“We’re very fortunate to not have any fatalities, let alone not have any injuries. It helped the morale of the entire cleanup.
“Our main goal is to help the uninsured and the underinsured to make sure their immediate needs have been met.”